One of my first flights was at night. I was a passenger in a Cessna 172 on a hop up to Chattanooga. The pilot was my friend and future instructor. I was still a little uneasy about flying – something that a few hours of flight training helped to take away. Every so often I would look below and a tinge of uneasiness would make me wonder how I had gotten up there, but the opposing force was the twinkling lights below and the calm stillness of the air around us. So what’s different about flying at night?

The Pilot
There are a few considerations a pilot needs for a successful night flight. The first is currency. 14 CFR 61.57 tells us that in order to carry passengers during the day, a pilot must have completed 3 takeoffs and landings within the last 90 days. To carry passengers at night, a pilot must have made three takeoffs and landings at night within the last 90 days. Then there are the physical challenges that comes from the dark. The most prominent of these is dark adaptation. It takes about 30 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the dark, so it’s best to avoid bright lights just before a flight, or more importantly, during the flight. A good way to do this is to get a flashlight that has color options other than just white. Many now have a red, green or blue option that helps to preserve night vision.

Cessna 172 X-Plane 11

Landing at night has its own set of challenges and illusions.

 

The Airplane
For VFR flight, there are certain items that the airplane must be equipped with to fly (14 CFR 91.205). The daytime list is remembered by the acronym “A TOMATO FLAMES,” and includes things like your altimeter, oil and temperature pressure indicators, and a magnetic compass, among others. For night flight, all of the day equipment is required with the addition of some items best remembered with the acronym “FLAPS.”
F – Fuses (one spare set, or three of each kind – not necessary if your airplane has circuit breakers)
L – Landing light (only required if flying for hire, although they sure are handy for…everyone).
A – Anticollision lights (for aircraft after 1971)
P – Position lights
S – Source of electricity (such as an alternator)

Cessna 172 X-Plane 11

This Cessna 172S (built after 1971), when not operated for hire, needs functional anticollision lights (Beacon/Strobe), position lights (Nav) and it’s alternator to fly at night.

 

Lights
The use of aircraft lighting at night is detailed out for us in 14 CFR 91.205 and AIM 4-3-23. Position lights (red and green wingtip and white tail) should be on at all times at night, and anticollision lights (red beacon and/or strobe) on at all times day or night. That strobe can be intense, so it’s ok to turn it off when it could affect other pilots on the surface or when it could affect you in the clouds. Additionally, the landing light should be turned on when cleared for takeoff and when operating below 10,000 feet, especially within 10 miles of an airport. That part is an optional pilot program called Operation Lights On, and it applies Day or night, but why would we want to avoid adding a layer of safety?

Cessna 172 X-Plane 11

Caption

 

Fuel
For daytime flight in VFR conditions, 14 CFR 91.151 tells us that we need to carry enough fuel to reach the first intended point of landing with 30 minutes to spare. At night, it says we need to have 45 minutes to spare. Keep in mind that these are legal minimums. At 10 gallons per hour of fuel burn, for example, 30 minutes is 5 gallons of fuel. 45 minutes would be 7.5 gallons. I’m not sure I want to land with that little in my tank, but the point is that you must at least set out with that much to begin.  This is another place where it’s best to keep the biggest margin possible.

Cessna 172 X-Plane 11

Caption

 

The Flight
At night, the visual component of flying is largely made up of whatever might be lit up. Looking at a sectional chart, areas of yellow show brighter lit areas as seen from the air. In the daytime, I might plan a flight over large, open spaces, like the ones here in Georgia that have a bunch of nice, flat fields in the event of engine failure. At night, though, those fields below will just look like darkness. Distinguishing a flat, open field from a forest or water can be difficult. Selecting a route that passes more airports, or follows major roads, not only allows for more places to land in the event of an emergency, but it also provides better situational awareness by having more landmarks underneath. Night flight is also a time where an iPad or other tablet has an advantage over paper charts. I love the simplicity and reliability of a paper chart, but at night, a backlit tablet can provide all the info you need without having to shine a flashlight on it. Keep that paper chart as a backup, though. Batteries die.

Sectional Chart

Caption

WATCH: This week’s X-Plane video is our night flight from Daytona Beach (KDAB) to Palm Beach (KPBI) at night.  We’ll discuss taxi diagrams and getting around the airport with ATC guidance, as well as some nuances of night flight in the sim! Be sure to subscribe:

 

Night flying can be a beautiful time to fly. There is nothing inherently different in the way the airplane flies. Sure, the air might be smoother, but there is no “night filter” needed to make the airplane perform the same as it does in the daytime. Most of the differences lie in the limitations of the pilot, so the best way to approach night flying is with some time with a CFI building some knowledge and experience. There isn’t much night flight required to obtain a Private Pilot’s Certificate, so much like you establish a personal minimum for clouds, wind and visibility, establish your own personal minimums for night flight. Enjoy it, but only when you are proficient with it.

 

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2 Comments

  1. John

    Many years ago my instructor taught me a lesson during night training that I will never forget. The reason it is so memorable is because it could easily happen.

    It was near the end of the lesson when he turned off all electrical items; radio, landing light, etc. Not only that, no flaps because we were in a Cessna 172 with electric flaps. No airport lighting either, because it was a non controlled airport with radio controlled lighting.

    He taught me to use peripheral vision to judge sink rate because looking into the darkness ahead made it hard to judge distance. It was further complicated because of a faster approach due to no flaps.

    It was great lesson because of the possibility of an alternator failure, then the equipment running down the battery. Airplane batteries are small.

    Reply
    • Clay

      Wow, John, that sounds like quite the experience – especially as a student pilot! It’s true that it’s easy to take the electrical systems for granted. Much like when the power goes out in a storm, we don’t realize how much we rely on it all until it’s gone. Thanks for reading!

      Reply

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